Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes the joints to become painful and stiff. It is the most common type of arthritis in the UK.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain and stiffness in your joints. This can make it difficult to move the affected joints and do certain activities.
The symptoms may come and go, which can be related to things like your activity levels and even the weather. In more severe cases, the symptoms can be continuous.
Other symptoms you or your healthcare professional may notice include:
- joint tenderness
- increased pain and stiffness when you have not moved your joints for a while
- joints appearing slightly larger or more 'knobbly' than usual
- a grating or crackling sound or sensation in your joints
- limited range of movement in your joints
- weakness and loss of muscle bulk
Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body. The most common areas affected are the knees, hips, and small joints in the hands. Often, you will only experience symptoms in one joint or a few joints at any one time.
Causes of osteoarthritis
As you age the tissues around your joints age too. This natural aging can sometimes develop into osteoarthritis.
With osteoarthritis, some of the cartilage (the protective surface that allows your joints to move smoothly) in the joint can be lost. Bony growths can develop, and the area can become slightly inflamed (red and swollen).
These changes are what cause the typical symptoms of pain, stiffness and swelling.
The exact causes are not known There are several factors thought to increase your risk of developing the condition.
Although it's not possible to prevent, making some lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of osteoarthritis. Maintaining a healthy weight may lower your chances of developing the condition.
There's no definitive test to diagnose osteoarthritis. Your GP or healthcare professional will ask about your symptoms. They'll also examine your joints to help determine whether you have the condition.
They may suspect osteoarthritis if you:
meet the age criteria (are 45 or older)
have activity related joint pain
Do not have morning joint related stiffness that eases after 30 minutes
If your symptoms are different from those listed above, this may mean that you have another joint condition.
An X-ray can help doctors to assess the level of damage to your joints. An X-ray is not currently recommended for diagnosis of osteoarthritis.
Management of osteoarthritis
Exercise is one of the most important ways of managing osteoarthritis, whatever your age or level of fitness. Specific exercises that help strengthen the muscles and joints are recommended.
Some people worry that exercising will increase their pain and cause further joint damage. This is not the case. Exercise can improve osteoarthritis, benefit the joints and reduce pain.
Read about exercises for the hip
Read about exercises for the knee
Read about exercises for the thumb
Exercise can also help ease symptoms because it can:
- help you lose weight
- improve your posture
- relieve stress
Read more about keeping active
Maintaining a healthy weight can be important part of treatment. This can often significantly reduce joint pain.
Read more information and tips on maintaining a healthy weight.
If pain medication is required it should only be short term use to support exercise. Pain medication can help you move more comfortably, which can help your recovery.
The most effective painkiller for this condition is a gel containing ibuprofen that is rubbed into the skin.
More about taking painkillers
Other pain medications like paracetamol and opioids are not as effective. They also come with potentially harmful side affects. If your pain remains at a high level you should discuss your options with a healthcare professional.
Corticosteroids are medicines that help reduce pain and inflammation. They may also be given with a local anaesthetic.
Injections will not cure your condition but can occasionally be used to help with short term pain relief when other treatments have been ineffective. There are risks associated with having this procedure, it can contribute to a deterioration in arthritis.
Read more about corticosteroids
Manual therapy is a treatment provided by a healthcare professional. It uses stretching techniques to keep your joints supple and flexible.
This should only be used alongside exercise, not as a replacement for it.
Supportive devices and aids
If your osteoarthritis causes mobility problems or difficulty performing everyday tasks, supportive devices could help.
There are a variety of tools and aids to assist you in your everyday activities. If you feel these would help you, you should speak to your healthcare professional.
Other therapies and devices
There is limited benefit to other therapies and devices that are often promoted or sold online. These may not be offered by NHS services.
These can include:
- hyaluronan injections
- electro therapy treatments
Surgery for osteoarthritis is only needed where other treatments have not been effective or where one of your joints is severely affected.
Having surgery for osteoarthritis may greatly improve your symptoms, mobility and quality of life. However, surgery cannot be guaranteed to fully resolve your symptoms. You may still experience pain and stiffness due to your condition. Risks of surgery can vary depending on a variety of factors including:
- your age
- body weight
- smoking status
- general health
Read more about waiting on a hip or knee replacement
Osteoarthritis can sometimes mean you need to take some time off work to help recovery. How long you're off will depend on the nature of your condition and your role at work.
You do not need to be symptom free before you consider returning to work. Continuing to go to work, or returning to work as soon as is possible for you, will help your recovery. Gradually getting back to your normal daily activities can help to build up your strength and stamina levels.
Help and support
If you're struggling to manage these symptoms on your own, talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.
Find out how to access MSK services in your area.
When dealing with any health condition it's important to also look after your mental wellbeing as this can impact your recovery.